April 17, 2018

Alphabetic Ballot Bias

voting-boothIt’s long been suspected that ballots alphabetized by candidates’ names confer an advantage to those at the ABCD end of the alphabet. Is this true; and who’s doing what to improve fairness in elections?
The theory is that some people haven’t pre-selected all 10 choices for councilor (say), so check off some at the top of the list when in the voting booth. Presumably, for many, this comes after they’ve chosen their party’s candidates, or after they’ve chosen some by an overriding method (such as incumbency or name recognition).
One good solution is to create a number of randomly-ordered, but differently ordered,  ballots, and distribute them randomly to the polling stations.  Such randomization is allowed under the Vancouver charter, but is not in use. This is not without its dangers, of course.  Imagine the concern if one of the random lists put all of one party’s candidates at the top. Yikes.
HERE‘s an analysis by Prof. Werner Antweiler of UBC’s Sauder School on the 2014 civic election in Vancouver.

. . .  as a researcher with the right empirical tools at hand, I went to find out if ballot order mattered in Vancouver too. You will probably not be surprised to learn that it does.
. . . Nowhere is this effect more pronounced than in municipal elections where (a) voting turnout is low, (b) voters do not feel that the outcome matters much to them, (c) party identification may be vague to many voter (an outsider would not infer political affiliations from the name “Non-Partisan Alliance”, for example), and (d) individual candidates have limited ability to reach out to voters directly.

As to the upcoming October 20 civic election, Joanne Lee-Young writes in Postmedia outlet the Vancouver Sun about Councilor Reimer’s motion to produce randomized ballots. She has, it seems, support from Councilor Affleck.

Says Bryan Breguet, who teaches economics at Langara College and makes election projections: “There is a fairly strong case that ballot order matters, but either way, you can reverse the burden of proof. Why would you be against a random list?”
“My own feeling is that there are academic literature studies which feel conclusive and others that don’t,” says Reimer. “But if there is any possibility of a bias, whether it’s a perception or if there is real harm, why not just do it?”

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  1. One reason it wasn’t done is that some voters with limited English and municipal affairs knowledge could be given a numbered list of candidates by a knowledgeable friend, and go down the list voting for candidates beside the recommended numbers. Not as easy with scrambled ballots.

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